1. Built environment
January 29, 2016

The places that maps forgot

By Barbara Speed

As anyone mistakenly left off a birthday invite list knows, it’s horrible to be forgotten. And as it turns out, states and regions are just as sensitive to this kind of thing as your friend Mike, who hasn’t spoken to you since you failed to add him to your “Xmas drinks 2k14” event on Facebook. 

This month, US radio station NPR was forced to apologise after it left the entire country of Israel off a map of the Middle East. Well, that’s not strictly true – it labelled the area “Palestine”, despite the fact that it contains both. Oops. The mistake, the graphic artist’s said, was down to the “very short time” he had to complete the picture. 

This isn’t the first time this has happened to Israel and it’s not always so clear that it’s a mistake.

Other places, as it turns out, are also susceptible to exclusion, elided from the globe altogether by some careless mapmaker. 

New Zealand was missed off a board game and a lacquered box 

Stufff.nz, a popular New Zealand news site, recently catalogued the maps which forgot the country’s existence.  The main offenders included the board game Risk, which doesn’t include the country in its (to be fair, incredibly geographically inaccurate) rendering of the world:

As Stuff.nz’s caption mournfully notes: “No matter how many armies you build up in Risk, you can’t invade New Zealand”. Image: Boardgamegeek. 

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This Japanese tea box, created to celebrate the year of the sheep, also leaves out poor old NZ: 

Image; via Stuff.nz.

There’s actually an entire website, World Maps Without New Zealand, dedicated to finding and shaming maps which fail to give the country a place. 

Wales (also, incidentally, a sheep-rearing country) was left off an EU map 

The Eurostat Statistical Compendium (a must-read, if you haven’t already) horrified fans in 2004 when its new edition missed Wales off the front cover:

Image: Eurostat via the BBC.

Michael Howard, the Welsh-born Tory leader at the time, made his displeasure clear:

“I know I’ve had my differences with Brussels, but I really do think that is going too far.”

Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans, meanwhile, told the BBC that the oversight was “more than a bit annoying”. 

HarperCollins forgot Israel on purpose 

Image: HarperCollins.

An entire run of a children’s atlas distribtued in the United Arab Emirates had to be pulped when it was pointed out that it left the Israel label off the map. This turned out to not be a mistake at all: HarperCollins, the publisher, felt that its inclusion would be “unacceptable” to its customers in the Gulf States. 

Google is fine with leaving bits of Africa empty 

Perhaps because of its advertising-driven model, Google doesn’t seem particularly motivated to fill in the blanks in its maps of African countries. Jerry Brotton, a historian of cartography, told Think Africa Press

“It is telling that some townships in South Africa are just blank spaces on the map… Mapping is becoming privatised, not even states have the vast resources necessary to compete, and inevitably the usual problem is that Africa comes very low down on the pecking order.”

Mapmakers forget entire cities all the time

A quick search of local news reports shows that it’s very common for mapmakers to leave out entire cities and towns, either due to lack of space or pure human error.

One Wisconsin town, Oconomowoc Lake, was wiped off two million highway maps in the ’90s thanks to a computer glitch. Its 500-odd residents weren’t all that bothered, but the mistake was soon corrected by prisoners, who stuck the town back onto the maps by hand:

The Tuscaloosa News, 7 March, 1999.

Most cities and towns reacted far less passively to exclusion, with mayors writing to the Senate and locals petitioning the National Geographic society. 

And so they should: the writer of a 1941 piece from the Southeast Missourian makes a good point while discussing the exclusion of Cape Girardeau from a defence map: 

“Whether this was a studied effort to ignore Cape Girardeau or mere carelessness on the part of those who designed the drawing is beside the point. What is important is why we should give anyone an opportunity to ignore or forget us.”


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